Los Angeles’ Shameful Chinese Massacre

Corpses of Chinese immigrants who were murdered during the massacre. Wikipedia

Contemporary Southlanders are sadly all too familiar with the 1965 Watts and 1992 Rodney King riots, but it was 142 years ago today that Los Angeles was rocked by local history’s most shocking melee.

October 24, 1871, marks the night the shameful “Chinese Massacre” erupted in a sordid tenderloin alley once known as Calle de los Negros, or the Street of the Dark Ones. A 50-foot-wide extension of Arcadia Street running northward toward the Plaza, the muddy, impoverished lane had become the central avenue for the area’s first Chinatown shortly after the American conquest. By 1870, 200 inhabits were crammed into the alleyway, which mixed legitimate Chinese businesses with every sort of vice.

In his book, “A History of California,” James Miller Guinn describes the street’s grim reputation…

“Whether its ill-omened name was given from the dark hue of the dwellers on it or from the blackness of the deeds done in it the records do not tell…  In length it did not exceed 500 feet, but in wickedness it was unlimited. On either side it was lined with saloons, gambling hells, dance houses and disreputable dives.” [p. 268]

Guinn goes on to relate how these rough-and-tumble establishments happily drew Angeleno dregs of every background, making Calle de los Negros a multi-racial caldron where a criminal underclass of Mexican, Native American, Chinese and Anglo thugs, thieves and murderers readily mingled.

Nevertheless, Chinese immigrants predominated the area, and throughout the summer of 1871, tensions among them simmered, with two rival tongs (gangs) clashing on and off again over the kidnapping of a woman named Yut Ho. Both camps began to arm themselves — with one of the tongs even going so far as to call in gunslingers from San Francisco.

Calle de los Negros map. Courtesy of waterandpower.org

Meanwhile, local media, particularly the Los Angeles Daily News, was increasingly stirring Angeleno hostility against the city’s Chinese through unabashedly racist reporting and editorializing.

These and other factors converged the afternoon of October 24, when members of one tong finally shot and killed a rival gang member in broad daylight. As fate would have it, the assassins took refuge in a seedy adobe block building owned by leading citizen Antonio Coronel. (He was later cited by the city for propagating a public nuisance.)

One of only six LA police officers at the time, Jesus Bilderrain was somehow occupied (some say drinking on duty) at a downtown saloon when he heard the shots. Mounting his horse and galloping to the scene, he came across the victim dying in the street. Eyeing suspects running into the Coronel Block, Bilderrain followed them in, but was critically wounded amid a sudden hail of bullets.

Bilderrain managed to retreat outside, where he blew his whistle for help. He was soon joined by officers Robert Hester and Esteban Sanchez, who also found themselves outnumbered, outgunned and totally unequal to the task of quelling what would quickly degenerate into a bloodthirsty race riot. (In fact, some historians suggest they may have fanned the flames.)

Calle de los Negros, Chinatown’s center in 1871. Coronel adobe is on left.

The Flash Point

Also arriving on the spot was Robert Thompson, a well-liked rancher and saloon owner, who tried to back up Sanchez by firing his gun indiscriminately into the block building. When the Chinese inside returned fire, Thompson was struck in the chest and killed.

Thompson’s death ignited Anglo and Mexican passions. As word of it spread, an angry mob of approximately 500 men, many of them elite and respected citizens, descended on Old Chinatown. They spent several hours storming and shooting up the Coronel Block, then rampaging, ransacking and looting virtually every Asian business in the vicinity throughout the night.

Scores of innocent Chinese were grabbed out of their shops and homes and dragged through the streets. It wasn’t long before brutal beatings turned into savage torture and lynchings. At one point a prominent merchant even reportedly handed out free rope to the lynchers.

Two wagons were upended to create makeshift gallows. Other victims were paraded to the crossbar of the Tomlinson Corral gate, a traditional hanging place at the intersection of Temple and New High Streets. By the end of the night, the official death tally was 18 Chinese males, some of them boys.

To this day historians call the incident the largest mass-lynching in U.S. history.

After the violence subsided, the victims’ bodies were displayed in the town’s jail yard (top photo). Law-abiding Angelenos were mortified. Both the coroner and the grand jury held official inquests. Local and national media alike condemned the riots.

In the end, however, the Chinese community saw little in the way of justice. As Scott Zesch notes in his article “Prelude to a Massacre” in the Summer 2008 issue of the Southern California Quarterly:

“Only ten rioters were ever brought to trial. Eight were eventually convicted on a reduced charge of manslaughter and sentenced to terms ranging from two to six years. The following year, their convictions were overturned on the most maddening of technicalities: the original indictments against them failed to specify that anyone had actually been murdered.” [pp. 144-145.]

Hanging of Lachenais for killing Jack Bell, October 4, 1871. Temple and New High Streets.

The sad truth is the city’s powerful had plenty of reason to sweep the incident underfoot. Many of them were directly involved — or at least had somehow cheered or abetted the mob. Officer Bilderrain himself, who had a reputation for larceny, corruption and Democratic electioneering, changed his story about the incident several times. There was also some question as to whether his fellow officers had aided the rioters by surrounding and containing Chinese residents within the hellish ghetto.

Today, Calle de los Negros and the Old Chinatown district are gone without a trace. They were leveled in the 1930s to make way for Union Station, forcing the Chinese community to relocate northeast to LA’s present-day Chinatown. The east side of Los Angeles Street just southeast of the Plaza now parallels the approximate course of the once-infamous alley.

Further Reading:

This article is courtesy of http://mimlay.com

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